Photographing Dartmoor Wheatears, Focus Settings & Photographing Birds in Flight Part 1

July 08, 2016  •  1 Comment

I was out early on Dartmoor on Saturday morning photographing juvenile Wheatears as there were plenty around on Friday as I informed you in last week’s blog. There was not a cloud in the sky which I was hoping would change because I prefer to take photos on a bright but cloudy day so that the sun is not too harsh or contrasty. Digressing for a moment, I always state that I am out early and early for me is between 04:00hrs and 05:30hrs and I stay till out till about 10:00hrs or 11:00hrs. There are several reasons for this but the main ones are I love the solitude I get at this time of day with just me and the wildlife. I love the light although late evening light is just as good but there are more people around especially letting their dogs chase the wildlife. Back to Saturday’s photography, I parked the car and walked the half mile to the area I had seen the wheatears. I set myself up and waited, not too much had to be done as I was going to handhold my camera and lens. I was lying down on a grassed area that was full of sheep and horse (Dartmoor pony) poo. (The things I do for my wildlife photography). The poo entices the insects which in turn entices the birds to feed on them. I waited for about an hour before the juvenile wheatears appeared. I had nothing and then three appeared all at once. As soon as they appeared a couple of Skylarks and a Meadow Pipit appeared. They were all pecking at grubs and insects whilst I clicked away, happy as a pig in SSSSSSheep poo!!! The juvenile wheatears got so close at one stage that I had to stop and just watch them because they were too close for me to focus on them. Come on Canon, I need a 500mm f4 lens that focuses at 2 metres. On a couple of occasions they flew away but returned within a couple of minutes. Whilst I laid there I could see the sky in front of me, over Tavistock, turning black and just in front of it was a full rainbow. The rainbow started getting closer and closer (bringing the gold to me) and the rain. As soon as I started to feel some drops I packed up and protected my camera equipment with my coat. I picked up my Linpix photography mat (a lot sturdier then a bin bag, and warmer), which saved me from getting wet and covered in you know what, and walked back to the car hoping that I have some good images on my CF card. The image below is of a Juvenile Wheatear from this shoot. It was taken handheld and I used manual focus.

Juvenile WheatearJuvenile Wheatear

Nowadays most cameras have got autofocus and most people rely on this method to get their subject in focus. There are normally two settings; One Stop in Canon cameras, Single Servo in Nikon and single shot in some others, where you press the shutter release half way down, the camera focuses using the selected autofocus point. To refocus you have to lift your finger off the shutter release and then press it half way down again. You can get a focus confirmation beep but please switch it off as it can disturb wildlife and it really gets on people's nerves after a while in a public hide. Instead of the annoying beep, Canon cameras have a green focus confirmation light that lights up in the viewfinder. As long as you keep the shutter release pressed half way down the focus will not change. The second autofocus setting is AI Servo in Canon cameras, Continuous Servo in Nikon and continuous focus in some others. This is where as long as you press the shutter release half way down the camera will keep on focusing at whatever the active autofocus point is pointing at.


Although autofocus is great it can have problems and that is why there is of course a third setting, the dreaded manual focus, but I'll talk about this setting later on.


The reason why there are two settings, ignoring manual, is because the first one I described is for static subjects and the second one is for moving subjects. But remember there is a way you can beat having two settings and just have one by combining them. This can be done by changing the settings in your camera and using a different button on your camera, normally at the back. This is called “back button focusing” and is great once you get used to using it. (Please read my previous blog on this subject ) (I will continue as though you do not use back button focusing).


With one shot focusing you set the autofocus point you require. I usually go for one of the autofocus points just outside the “partial metering” circle (the feint circle seen in your viewfinder, in red in the photo below) either top left, top right, bottom left or bottom right.




The reason I pick these is to help with the composition of the image as it gets the subject away from the centre of the photograph ( Please read my previous blog on composition ) When you see a static subject put the selected autofocus point on the part of the subject you want sharp, usually the eye, recompose to how you want the image, keeping the shutter release pressed half way down, and then press the shutter release all the way down to take the shot. If you have a problem focusing and the lens starts to hunt, goes back and forth, then you can always focus on something that is close to the same distance as your subject and then focus on your subject.


When using the AI Servo setting you have got to keep the selected autofocus point on the subject, in other words you must “pan” with the moving subject, press the shutter release half way down to activate the autofocus. Once focus has been achieved you can then continue pressing the shutter release all the way down to take the shot. One of the biggest problems people don't get sharp images of moving subjects is because they do not allow the focus to be achieved by the camera before they take the shot. A lot of cameras nowadays allow you specify which autofocus points can track the moving subject. There are too many options to discuss in this blog but read your instruction book (Oh NO!!!) and look on the internet to see how other owners of your camera model have set theirs up and see the results they get. You can set your drive to high speed so that you can take multiple shots of the moving subject. If you can, try and let the cameras autofocus lock on to the subject when it is some distance away. Once it has locked on then “pan” with the subject, keeping the shutter release pressed half way down and wait until it is the desired distance away before taking the shot. If you look at the photo below, of a flying fulmar, I had locked onto this subject when it was flying around the previous headland, quite some distance away.


As I previously said some cameras, once focus has been achieved, the active autofocus point will move, track, with the subject, to the next point around the cameras focusing area to keep the subject in focus.


Camera manufacturers have spent millions of pounds, dollars, yen etc. on upgrading every new cameras autofocus so then you might think that if you have got autofocus then why do you need manual focus. I wonder what percentage of photographers ever uses manual focus, I know I do. Let me tell you that there are still times when manual focus is the best focusing option as it gives you more control over what you want to appear sharp in your image and it can achieve effects that are not possible with autofocus. At the beginning focusing manually can be a pain and very slow to use but after a while you do get quicker at achieving focus. To start with you will have to change a switch on your lens from AF to M. You can do this in any shooting mode and as soon as you flick the switch you will notice that when you half press the shutter release button nothing will happen this is because you will have to turn the focusing ring on your lens to focus. Look through your viewfinder and as you turn the ring you will notice things getting in focus and then out of focus as you keep on turning. Years ago you had a split prism in the centre of your viewfinder and to focus you had to twist your lens’ focusing ring so that the view in the centre all lines up and then the image would be sharp. Nowadays you have an unsharp image and you twist the lens’ focusing ring until it is sharp. I actually find it harder to manually focus through the viewfinder now because the image can be dark and because I'm older!! Nowadays though there is help for us old ones, you can use your live view screen to focus on the part of the image you want sharp. Using live view is good because you can zoom into the image and be really critical about what you want sharp. I use this method of focusing when doing macro photography. As usual I want the eye sharp. With autofocus it will focus on the thing that the autofocus point is aiming at and that might not be the eye. With manual focus, especially using live view, you not only get the eye sharp but you can also see the amount of depth of field you are getting and, because it is so shallow, you can change it if needs be. Some people set a distance or a magnification on their lens and move in and out whilst shooting lots of frames. Images are cheap nowadays and this is one method you could employ.


Apart from using manual focus for macro photography I also sometimes use it when I'm out photographing wildlife with my telephoto lens. The times I think about manual focus is when the lighting, subject and background is very flat, when there is something, like a branch, a plant or grass, like the image of the Juvenile wheatear above, partly blocking the subject and when the background is very bright compared to the subject. Also you might have to switch to manual focus if you are shooting through glass say at a zoo or wildlife park. To achieve focus I look through the viewfinder and rotate the focusing ring until I go just past sharp focus then I rotate it back going just past sharp focus. I do this rotating it by smaller and smaller amounts each time until focus is achieved.


Landscape photographers use manual focus regularly especially when they want the whole scene in view in focus. The term they use is Hyperfocal because it is the hyperfocal point they use to focus on. On some, mainly older, lenses photographers used the lens’ depth of field (dof) scale on the lens (its the scale just above the small window.




They used to set the aperture, say f16, then rotate the focusing ring until the infinity marker, 8 on its side, was lined up with one f16 marker on the dof scale and the other marker was lined up with the minimum “in focus” measurement which could be 2 meters for example. That means that everything from 2 meters to infinity would be in acceptable focus. Nowadays some people focus a third of the way into the viewfinder by moving their active autofocus point to the bottom third line and focusing whatever is on this line. Others have a hyperfocal depth of field chart for their particular lens which gives them the focusing information although you can get an app for your smartphone or tablet.

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Next week’s blog is part 2 which is about using this information to get images of Birds in Flight.


Craig MacInnes(non-registered)
Thanks once again for an entertaining and informative blog Robin. I must admit I was one of those photographers who didn't use manual focus very much if at all when I first started because a) I didn't really understand the science behind it and b) lacked confidence and felt I had too many other things to worry about :-) Now, like you, I use it a lot especially for close-up work and while I wouldn't claim to fully understand the "science" bit fully, my confidence has grown the more I do use it...I liked your technique of going beyond sharp, then back again through sharp then repeating till you achieved the focus you wanted. I might try that deliberate method myself. Like you, I find it quite tricky to achieve manual focus through the viewfinder (specs and age I'm afraid!) so tend to use live view also.
I notice you like using the 1.4 extender quite a bit. I am always disappointed in the results I get from using an extender so tend not to bother, but I was wondering if there are any special tips or techniques to using one I'm not aware of? Oh, and thanks for the tip about the Linpix photography mat.

Cheers, Craig

P.S. Definitely save up the pennies for the 100-400mm Robin - you'll love it. To my eye it's pretty well as near as damnit in quality to the prime 300mm and 400mm.
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